I have just spent three months negotiating one writer’s agreement, where not a word has been written on the script. By the time we lawyers have finished I sometimes wonder if they will still want to work together.

(anonymous media lawyer)

ScriptOthers in the film industry, from writers to producers to executives, probably feel similar sentiments when they participate in the process of getting an idea for a film from paper to the film set. It is often a long, difficult, and strenuous process for all parties involved. Of course, the upsides are significant. A carefully planned and well-executed film can be financially rewarding and artistically satisfying.

Script Development Unpacked

All films start with a screenwriter’s initial idea or story concept. Producers, who are in charge of raising money for a film project, frequently come up with ideas as well. Ideas for stories can be original or adapted from plays or novels, which make up approximately half of all Hollywood films. Once a story idea is firmly in place, the negotiation process between the writer and the producer (or production company or a studio) begins.

The writer hires an agent who represents him and plays a critical role in ensuring that the writer’s interests are represented in the negotiation process. The agent also ensures that the writer is paid appropriately in accordance with what intellectual property rights may be worth in the future.

The producer can choose two options to move the project forward and begin the process of attracting funders to finance the project: buy the rights to the story idea or the material (a novel or play) from which it was adapted from outright or buy an option of the film rights.

Buying an option of the film rights means that the producer owns the right to develop the film but only for a certain amount of time. To be clear, the producer does not own the rights to the film idea itself.

Rather, he is the only person allowed to develop it into a screenplay. He pays the writer in smaller, agreed-upon installments throughout this period and also agrees to pay him a significantly higher amount for all film rights once shooting begins. After the terms are negotiated, the writer can finally start working on the screenplay.

Writers and producers try to establish a solid relationship. If they don’t,  the writer could essentially lose the rights to the project. During negotiations, the producer often requests, as a safeguard measure, that the writer either give or option the rights of the film idea to him in order to guarantee that the writer does not suddenly choose another producer.

This also enables the producer, if he thinks it is necessary for the development of the film, to fire the writer and hire someone else.

However, filmmaking is very expensive and the writer will likely not possess the large amount of capital needed to see his script played out on the big screen.

As result, the writers in effect need to give up most or all of their rights to the film for it to be financed, developed, marketed, and distributed to cinemas. It is also the only way they will get paid. To avoid this unfavorable situation, writers sometimes come up with fully written screenplays on their own, called speculatives or spec. scripts, and sell them to producers.

This gives the writer more leverage in the negotiation process because the producer cannot hire another writer.

In general, developing a screenplay that is based on a novel, play or real-life story is more straightforward than writing from scratch. The obvious advantage is that everyone involved already knows the overall storyline and has a good understanding of what the project will look like in the end. If the script is based on a novel, actors can read the novel itself to better understand the characters and be prepared when filming begins.

Producers, in turn, will have an easier time attracting the funding to develop the screenplay and the production of the film. Additionally, adaptations typically are based on previously successful and well-known works—the Lord of the Rings trilogy is an excellent example. It is probably safe to say fans of novels or plays would love to see their favorite works be made into movies. Writers, actors and producers understand this perfectly.

They, too, would like to see the books, plays, or real-life stories they like made into films, but they also understand the financial incentives as well: the fans of a written-work will very likely go see the adapted film version. As a result, the odds are good that an adaptation will be a financial success.

However, an adaptation is more expensive for a producer because not only does he have to pay for the right (i.e., the option) to make the film, he also has to pay the screenwriter to write the script.

Also, as noted above, buying an option places a time limit on the production. If the producer does not complete the movie before the option expires, he has gained nothing and has only lost money. In a situation like this, the producer only owns the option to make the film, not the rights to the adapted work.

In other agreements, the writer ensures that the title of the film is the same as that of his written work. This increases sales of the book when the film is released. Sometimes the writer sells all of the rights to the producer for a certain number of years before owning them again.

Script Development in the Context of the Film Industry

Screenplay development is one part of the larger industry of filmmaking. Love of the craft, of course, serves as the primary motivation for people to make movies, but, like other industries, filmmaking is a market-driven business. Potential profit propels a film’s development forward. Every person involved in a film project wants it to be financially successful.

For this to happen, a screenplay must undergo a number of changes. The writer (and sometimes a couple of others, such as the script editor) works on the script itself, but by the time film is ready to be shot, the project’s funders, actors, directors, producers and development executives also have had a say in what the script should look like.

Funders, for example, oftentimes have a specific vision for a script and set of actors and directors in mind. Conflicts over whether a film should include more famous, well-known actors versus less-known actors can also arise.

Cultural trends and audience tastes, such as the current demand for zombie movies, must also be taken into consideration. These and other factors help determine which direction the script takes, who pays the writer or writers, and who finances the production of the film itself.

Developing a good screenplay is a collective effort. A script will only be good enough to make it to film through the process of constructive feedback and discussion.. The reality of filmmaking is that there is no other way to see a script come to life on the big screen.